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December 07, 2009

With boundless delight

While visiting Petter Holme in Korea last week, we naturally engaged in a little bit of that favorite past time of researchers: griping about cowardly editors, capricious referees, and how much publishing sometimes seems like a popularity contest. In the midst of this, Petter mentioned an old gem of a rejection letter, now widely quoted on the Internets, but new to me.

This apocryphal rejection was apparently quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago, but I couldn't find it in the Chronicle's archives; it's also rumored to have been quoted in the Financial Times, but I couldn't find it in their archives, either. Here's a version of it, with some editorial commentary from another source, that Petter shared with me:

Responses from several journal editors seek to hearten authors by noting that an article's rejection may constitute neither a personal rebuke nor disparagement of the article's ideas. However, the following rejection letter from a Chinese economics journal inflicts the same damage as a blunt, two-sentence refusal: "We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity."

A beautifully backhanded rejection, but it smells a little like an urban ("academic"?) myth. Petter pointed out that a Chinese journal would more probably have said "beg you ten thousand times to overlook" rather than just a "thousand times". This stems from the cultural usage of "ten thousand" being equivalent to a very large but unspecified number, while "a thousand" typically just means 1000. If the original rejection was in Chinese, this could simply be a translation error. Or, the Chinese journal might have been being especially mean spirited.

Update 7 December 2009: Dave Schwab points me to a video Cosma Shalizi sent me a few weeks ago, about peer review. Despite the obviously terrible German-to-English translation, it does a pretty good job of summarizing many people's feelings about the vagrancies of the peer review process.

Update 8 December 2009: For many of us with fingers (or whole selves) in the computer science world, it's reviewing season for several conferences. This year, I'm on the program committee for the WWW 2010 conference. Inside some of the recent PC-related emails, there was a link to a brief, tongue-in-cheek article about How NOT to review a paper, in which Graham Cormode of AT&T describes the tools of the "adversarial reviewer." Having recently experienced some of these very tactics (with a paper submitted to PNAS), it's a fun read. I particularly liked his future direction in which he (half) advocates turning reviewing into a blood sport. Too late!

posted December 7, 2009 08:59 AM in Simply Academic | permalink


That's why there is Rejecta Mathematica.

I am familiar with this particular griping pastime. :) But I also bet we've all been the referee on several occasions who is being viewed as capricious, and I have on occasion wondered if the person to whom I'm talking is complaining about something I wrote as a referee.

Posted by: Mason Porter at December 7, 2009 03:05 PM

That little bit of mystery is partly what makes it such a fun past time :)

Posted by: Aaron at December 7, 2009 10:53 PM